Obituary: Mary Stewart, Scottish teacher who inspired generations with her musical gifts

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Mary Stewart, teacher. Born: 
15 May, 1926. Died: 4 November, 2019.

Mary Stewart was a wonderful schoolteacher whose career was mostly dedicated to the teaching of infants. She did, however, have one gift that made her different from other teachers. She had a love of music and a talent for it that was to define her career. This was evident from her first teaching post in Arbroath High School, through various posts in Musselburgh, Gorebridge, Lasswade, Danderhall and, finally, in George Watson’s College in Edinburgh, where she taught from 1962 until 1985.

Mary was an accomplished musician, both as a singer and an accompanist. Yet, as a musician, she was always self-effacing. She never quite realised how good she was. That was the view of the Rev Charles Robertson when he addressed a large congregation at a Thanksgiving Service for Mary held in St Cuthbert’s Church in Edinburgh. He was probably right but others did indeed appreciate her gift. Malcolm Martineau, the world-renowned accompanist, writing in Caritas, the magazine of former pupils and friends of George Watson’s College, in July, 2013, said this of her: “Right from the start of Primary 1 in George Watson’s I was struck by the joy of music-making with the wonderful singing led by Mrs Stewart. She was a great improviser and could embellish any song in any key, and at the age of five it sounded as if she had 50 
fingers!”.

It was at Watson’s that she found the platform to develop her skills and influence so many young people. As the Watsonian of 1985 commented when she retired from teaching, “Throughout her 23 years in Watson’s she has shared her music happily with thousands of boys and girls, not to mention parents and staff. Not only has she trained successive choirs in the school but she has instilled in the children of the Lower Primary a great love of singing.” That love of music and singing would remain with most of her pupils for the rest of their lives.

Mary Stewart was born in a croft house in Burnside of Ayeon, Ballindalloch, near Grantown on Spey. She attended Ballindalloch Primary School and Aberlour Secondary School before attending Aberdeen Teacher Training College from 1944 to 1946. There she won the Charles Macgregor Memorial Prize awarded to the top student. Even at that early stage she was showing the skills that were to become so apparent in her professional life as an infant teacher.

Her private life was very much involved with the church, which was the great anchor in her life. She had been brought up in the church. She faced the public as a musician for the first time as a 12 year old, when she was pressed to play the organ in her home church, Inveravon Parish Church. Later in life she married a Church of 
Scotland minister, Murray Stewart.

Mary and Murray were married in King’s College Chapel, Aberdeen, in 1954 and there began such a happy and inspired partnership that benefited congregations in Rosewell, Viewforth, Gorgie and the Scots Kirk in Lausanne, Switzerland. That partnership was well summed up in a tribute from a former member of the Lausanne congregation. “Murray and Mary were two wonderful, towering figures in our church. Their love for everyone, their devotion to their Lord, their utter generosity in every aspect of their lives were amongst the best models of Christian conduct we have witnessed”.

The churches where Murray was the minister were to provide yet another setting for Mary’s music making. In all these parishes she was the central figure in developing choirs and playing the piano.

While in Lausanne she had a wonderful relationship with the blind organist, working happily with her and providing piano accompaniment to her playing.

In Lausanne she performed with Choeur Pro Arte de Lausanne from 1986 to 1993. She also gave 22 years of magnificent service to the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union and was a founder member of the Scottish Chamber Choir.

Mary’s last choir was that of St Cuthbert’s, which she joined on returning from Lausanne. Sadly, Murray died in 1994 and was not able to share in the life Mary built for herself as a totally committed member of St Cuthbert’s.

She was ordained an elder in 1995 and became heavily involved with many of its charitable groups, was the coordinator for many years of its telephone prayer group and, still loyal to her teaching roots, was the hostess of the Watson’s table at the monthly Saturday Coffee Meeting.

Mary is survived by her two children, Charles, vicar of Christchurch in Dorset, and Janine, a university academic support administrator in Cambridge; her daughter-in-law, Pat; and her two grandchildren, Kate and Jonny. She took great pride and delight in the achievements of her grandchildren.

Mary is also survived by a host of friends who delighted in her love, her faith, her friendship, her laughter, her music, her generosity of spirit, her wisdom and her hugely positive attitude to life. Who but Mary Stewart would buy a new piano at the age of 93 and continue to play it every day until she became ill? She was a very special person.

Matthew MacIver